Rigid Christian Sex Roles Hurt Andrea Yates

The author argues that the Christian fundamentalist beliefs that enshrine male control over women played a role in the destruction of the Yates family and that Christian fundamentalist religions should preach a gospel of equality between the sexes.

(WOMENSENEWS)-Various players in the Andrea Yates tragedy have attracted national scrutiny: the psychotic mother, her five drowned children, her husband, psychiatrists and family members.

Each one, no doubt, played a role in the ultimate tragedy. However, there's one more character, without which the long, sad story would not have happened: a conservative Christian culture that continues to empower abusive husbands while telling women they belong at home with their children-as many children as God and their own fertility provide.

Before marrying Russell Yates, Andrea Kennedy was a successful young woman working as a post-operative nurse. She enjoyed regular swimming and jogging and was from a Roman Catholic family.

When Yates and Kennedy decided to marry, both felt that contraception was wrong. Accepting “as many children as God sends” is still the ideal being urged upon Christians by the Roman Catholic Church and by many small, independent biblical churches, entrapping women like Andrea Yates, who had five children and one miscarriage during her eight years of marriage.

The Church Dictates a Woman's Place

The church also told Andrea that she belonged at home with her children. She stopped working after the birth of her first child and gave up exercise, according to a January report by Time magazine. When her older sons were of school age, she did not give herself a break; instead she began home-schooling. Conservative churches press mothers to do this because they view public school as lacking in Christian values. Some, and perhaps many women, are being crushed by an increasingly heavy burden.

Another belief in the chain that helped drag Andrea down was that a woman should submit to her husband as decision-maker. As Time reported, Russell Yates was head of the household, and a traveling evangelist taught them that God created man to “dominate.”

Feminist scholars of the Bible, however, have been finding a biblical basis for equality in marriage since the early 1970s, in books such as “All We're Meant To Be” by Letha Scanzoni and Nancy Hardesty (1974), “Women and Men in the Bible” by Virginia Mollenkott (1977), and “Heirs Together” by Pat Gundry (1980). But there are still many women who have not heard the good news.

When Russell wanted to move out of their four-bedroom house into a trailer, and then into a bus-turned-motor-home, Andrea sold the furniture and went along with the plan. By June 1999, she was caring for four children in the bus, which was only 350 square feet. The conditions of her life were unbearable and to challenge them would have been to oppose God's will. A psychiatrist provided medication, but no one was giving her other choices. Finally Andrea's parents convinced Russell to let his family move into a three-bedroom home.

Another sign of Russell's heavy control-dominating just as the traveling evangelist told him was his right-was that he allowed only one friend to visit Andrea, according to the Time report. She was a prisoner in her own home, without even the resources of friends at church because her husband had not found a church he liked.

The traveling evangelist had beaten her with sharp words; Russell belittled her often, according to Time. Andrea was absolutely convinced that she was a lousy mother and had failed her children. When she was interviewed after the murders, an officer asked how long she had considered this act. “Since I realized I have not been a good mother to them,” she answered, quoting Matthew 18:6, which states that a person should be flung into the sea rather than cause a child to sin. She felt that drowning her children would guarantee her own execution and also free the children from further pain.

Churches Should Appoint Women in Leadership Roles

The swift, cruel verdict in the Yates trial ignores all these factors that contributed to the tragedy. We may not be able to help Andrea at this point, but we must reach out to other women caught up in similarly desperate circumstances.

Feminists in various Christian churches have been actively pursuing this task for about 30 years, including some working specifically on fundamentalist churches. For example, the Evangelical and Ecumenical Women's Caucus was founded in 1974 to change the inequality of women within conservative Christianity. Since unsuccessfully lobbying for passage of the Equal Rights Amendment, the caucus's newsletter and other educational materials have encouraged churches to take on women pastors and appoint women to other leadership roles. The caucus has also worked to ensure that women and men have equal say in decision-making within the family and in their contributions to the upkeep of the household. Another group, Catholics for a Free Choice, is spreading the good news that controlling our fertility is within God's will.

We all need to spread the word. Otherwise more mothers will suffer as did Andrea, who believed she had failed, and inevitably the children will suffer as well at the hands of overwhelmed parents and caregivers.

Anne Eggebroten is the author of the book “Abortion-My Choice, God's Grace.”

For more information:

This article is adapted from a longer piece
“A Biblical Feminist Looks at the Andrea Yates Tragedy”:

Evangelical and Ecumenical Women's Caucus:

Catholics for a Free Choice: